Utah’s ‘troubled-teen industry’ warned about investigation launched by Disability Law Center

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters join a march to the Provo Canyon School, during a rally calling for the closure of Provo Canyon School, a residential treatment center in Utah she attended when she was a teen, on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020.

Concerned about reports of children being abused and lax government oversight, Utah’s Disability Law Center announced in October that it would investigate the state’s “troubled-teen” treatment facilities, an industry that has thrived here for decades.

But that investigation — and getting access to youth treatment facilities — may not be easy.

The director of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP) recently hosted a web meeting and offered her advice to facilities on how to respond.

NATSAP Executive Director Megan Stokes said she has concerns that Disability Law Centers across the country are quick to go to the media and may try to find problems just so they can say they’ve helped more people, which could result in more federal funding.

“They operate under the assumption,” she said, “that even if there isn’t smoke, there’s still fire.”

She urged the programs to pay attention. Hire a lawyer. If they saw an increase in public record requests, it probably meant they were being investigated.

Make sure if you have questions, she advised, to call instead of email so there isn’t a paper trail.

“Be polite,” Stokes said, according to a recording shared with The Salt Lake Tribune. “But decline to let them [access] any nonpublic portions of your program until attorneys have a chance to review the basis for their request.”

Child advocates say the recorded conversation is concerning. The Disability Law Center is Utah’s “protection and advocacy” organization, which is a federal designation that gives them special access to programs if they have credible reports of abuse or mistreatment.

Such P&A organizations are a check to ensure people with disabilities are not mistreated.

Nick Jackson, an attorney with the Disability Law Center, said his organization generally has had access to everything from jails to adult long-term care facilities. Most places, he said, are welcoming.

“All parties involved, when there is any kind of abuse or neglect alleged,” he said, “should be interested in openness and transparency.”

But he doesn’t think Stokes’ advice sounds welcoming.

“It’s a little bit troubling to hear that if there were records requests, the intention is to subvert access from a P&A agency,” Jackson said. “We never like to hear that.”

The advocacy group Breaking Code Silence, which released portions of the recording Wednesday, called the conversation “deeply disappointing” but not surprising. The online movement is led by former residents of youth treatment facilities, who say they want to raise awareness of abuses in the industry and advocate for change.

“This is the problem with youth residential programs being overseen and governed by organizations with a financial interest in such programs themselves,” organizers said in a statement. “For such an organization to operate on the public promise of making sure programs are safe for children, only to privately advise those very same programs to avoid cooperating with records requests, to cover themselves and skirt accountability... It is a breach of ethics and a moment of revealing. We can hear for ourselves where their motives lie.”

Stokes told The Tribune that NATSAP was not trying to encourage facilities to avoid scrutiny. She said that after high-profile rallies and news reports, some facilities were confused about what the Disability Law Center was and what sort of access it legally has to their buildings.

“We have not and will not assist or encourage a program to be anything but cooperative with any regulatory agency,” she said. “It was more informational.”

Jackson said Utah’s Disability Law Center is still in the early stages of its investigation and hasn’t had much interaction with the youth treatment facilities in the state yet.

“Our access authority is pretty clear,” he said. “It’s in federal law, and it’s pretty detailed. And there are remedies if a facility does refuse access under those laws.”

The Disability Law Center investigation comes after former students of troubled-teen facilities have recently been outspoken about the abuse they say they suffered at facilities in Utah and elsewhere. They’ve held several rallies, including one in Provo led by celebrity Paris Hilton.

Hilton has advocated to close Provo Canyon School, a facility she attended in the 1990s, and has recently gone public with allegations of abuse during her time there.

She reacted to the NATSAP recording on Instagram, saying that it appeared the organization was trying to skirt regulation and investigations that keep children safe.

“We deserve transparency,” she wrote, “and cooperation!”

There are youth residential treatment centers across the country, but Utah is known as a place where the troubled-teen industry has thrived. It’s home to nearly 100 youth treatment centers, which has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars in government money.

The Disability Law Center also plans to draft a report identifying shortfalls in government oversight. It’s a topic likely to be considered by the Utah Legislature when the session starts next month. Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said he plans to draft a bill that would create more transparency in Utah’s system and possibly a hotline or some method for kids to report abuse.